HOW IT WILL BE USED...Chek Lap Kok will track baggage, passengers and cargo using the electronic tagging system The Airport Authority plans to expand the scope of an electronic tagging programme at Chek Lap Kok to include air cargo and passenger boarding passes in addition to baggage handling. The authority should conduct preliminary installation next month of a $50 million, advanced electronic baggage-tracking system that will be the single largest deployment of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in Asia. But industry insiders expect problems to crop up when the system is rolled out to steadily replace bar code-scanning facilities at the airport. There was speculation that RFID testing by the authority might have been responsible for a four-hour baggage-handling breakdown on August 24, causing 31 flights to be delayed and affecting thousands of travellers. However, head of technical services and procurement Wong Yiu-fai, denied the authority's strictly controlled RFID testing procedures played a role in that or any other recent breakdown. Mr Wong said RFID could deliver higher operational efficiency, increased security and greater customer satisfaction when the technology was extended to other airport activities and infrastructure. The authority's initial RFID project involves the use of tags, each of which combines a silicon chip and antenna, attached to pieces of luggage. Data on each tag can be read and sent through the airwaves by a reader. Wireless reader systems will be installed at various nodes within the airport - including baggage carousels, unit-load devices and conveyors - to read and write to the RFID tags. Administrators automatically collect data without line of sight or manual scanning, unlike in bar code-tracking systems. Dozens of RFID tags can also be read simultaneously through packaging, shipping containers and most materials without direct physical contact. Mr Wong said: 'Our target is to complete the roll-out of RFID in baggage handling by the first quarter next year. After this, we want to see the technology used in air cargo operations and embedded in passenger boarding passes.' He said Hong Kong was accustomed to using RFID, albeit a low-level kind, through the 'contactless' Octopus cards used to pay fares on buses, trains and ferries, and the auto-toll system used by motorists. The extended use of RFID in air cargo operations and boarding passes was expected to provide economies of scale by lowering the purchase price of the tags. These tags would make up the largest expense of any RFID deployment. Hong Kong International Airport will be provided with about 17 million tags annually and several hundred RFID readers, including mobile, handheld and conveyor fixed-position units, under a three-year contract with United States-based RFID system supplier Symbol Technologies. The tags cost about 20 US cents each. Symbol's vice-president for Asia-Pacific operations, Erik Wood, said the company had started discussions with Hong Kong's two cargo hub operators - Asia Airfreight Terminal and Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals - to carry out extensive RFID tests as early as next year. Mr Wong said RFID-embedded boarding passes were expected to enhance customer service at Chek Lap Kok. With the technology, passengers can be located more quickly so they do not miss their flights and misplaced luggage can be reunited quickly with its owner. Airline Operators Committee vice-chairman Edwin Tse said the airlines recognised the benefits of RFID and had committed to co-operate with the Airport Authority. But he said problems were expected because the system was to be implemented alongside the existing bar code-scanning setup at the airport's 288 check-in counters. Mr Wong said: 'We did not expect this to be a simple project. We know that implementation will be a challenge.' Mr Tse said there was also the issue of establishing a standard measurement of RFID tags that would be attached by different airlines on each passenger's checked-in luggage. The airlines and the authority had not discussed that yet. 'It would be more practical if there were other large Asian airports deploying RFID for baggage-handling so that these standards could be more widely adopted,' Mr Tse said. He said the benefits of RFID did not extend to most air terminals overseas. The Hong Kong project involves much more equipment because all the airport's conveyor sorting systems will have RFID capability, compared with the roll-out at the smaller McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, where Symbol first deployed an RFID system. Symbol vice-president John Shoemaker said he was confident Hong Kong would successfully create 'a technical showcase' for other airports to compare the cost and operating benefits of RFID with existing baggage and cargo tracking infrastructure. 'We are talking to over a dozen airports in Asia anxious to implement this new system,' Mr Shoemaker said.